Pop singer makes two excellent points on development

I know it is fashionable to denounce celebrities who get in involved in international development, but I admire both Bono and Bob Geldof.   They are smart enough to take advice from smart people, and they put serious amounts of time and effort into visiting developing countries and getting to know the people and understand the issues.  Indeed, they have both probably spent more time visiting in developing countries than the armchair critics who mock them.  They have stuck with the issues for more than a quarter of a century – much longer than the fleeting interest of many journalists and politicians. Neither of them needs the publicity: their willingness to use the platform of their fame to speak out for the poor has helped to keep development on the political agenda.

Bono made two very good points in the New York Times on Monday:

An Equal Right to Pollute (and the Polluter-Pays Principle)
In the recent climate talks in Copenhagen, it was no surprise that developing countries objected to taking their feet off the pedal of their own carbon-paced growth; after all, they played little part in building the congested eight-lane highway of a problem that the world faces now. One smart suggestion I’ve heard, sort of a riff on cap-and-trade, is that each person has an equal right to pollute and that there might somehow be a way to monetize this. By this accounting, your average Ethiopian can sell her underpolluting ways (people in Ethiopia emit about 0.1 ton of carbon a year) to the average American (about 20 tons a year) and use the proceeds to deal with the effects of climate change (like drought), educate her kids and send them to university. (Trust in capitalism — we’ll find a way.) As a mild green, I like the idea, though it’s controversial in militant, khaki-green quarters. …

People Power and the Upside-Down Pyramid
A lot of us have seen or lived the organizational chart of the last century, in which power and influence (whether possessed by church, state or corporation) are concentrated in the uppermost point of the pyramid and pressure is exerted downward. But in this new century, and especially in some parts of the developing world, the pyramid is being inverted. Much has been written about the profits to be made at the bottom of the pyramid; less has been said about the political power there. Increasingly, the masses are sitting at the top, and their weight, via cellphones, the Web and the civil society and democracy these technologies can promote, is being felt by those who have traditionally held power. Today, the weight bears down harder when the few are corrupt or fail to deliver on the promises that earned them authority in the first place. The world is taking notice of this change. On her most recent trip to Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton bypassed officials and met instead with representatives of independent, nongovernmental groups, which are quickly becoming more organized and more interconnected. For example, Twaweza, a citizen’s organization, is spreading across East Africa, helping people hold local officials accountable for managing budgets and delivering services. (Twaweza is Swahili for “we can make it happen.”)

(Disclosure: I am a member of the board of Twaweza, so it is not surprising that I agree with Bono that their work is good.)

Update: You should also read Alex Evans’s excellent piece at Global Dashboard on the importance of Bono’s support for contract and converge.

5 comments on “Pop singer makes two excellent points on development”

  1. Ah, I tried to look up stuff about Twaweza when I read Bono’s piece (which has some rather dubious errors/contentious points elsewhere).

    I couldn’t find an awful lot apart from what’s on the Hivos website – and a lot of the documentation there I found to be rather jargon-heavy and very flowery in language – particularly the executive summary. The gaps in the information that I could find left me feeling a bit skeptical about it, but it’s slightly reassuring to see you mention it here.

    I got the general intentions though and read a bit further and I really hope it succeeds. As someone with an interest in Tanzania I hope I’ll be able to see where it’s up to (I presume it’s all still very early stages, as it’s been going just over a year). I shall have to look at the website when it materialises.

  2. Oh, I will also say I do find Bono incredibly irritating – not because I don’t think pop stars have anything useful to contribute – I just find him quite generally irritating. I’m not quite sure what it is. So I’ve probably been quite snide about him elsewhere, which I probably shouldn’t be. I will try to correct this. I don’t have the same problem with Bob Geldof.

  3. Like Phil, I was also looking for more information on Twaweza after reading the Sunday NYT. I have written a book on how grassroots social movements of the poor hold the answer to poverty alleviation, and also maintain a blog where I write about this (I also wrote a review of Dead Aid for example).

    So I am ever on the lookout for new evidence! Grassroots movements that are challenging the status quo politically, promoting both internal and external democracy and defining their own solutions — what a difference from the traditional aid and development picture, no?

    I would be very interested in your comments, as well as learning more about Twaweza: how did it begin? Who have joined and how is it run?
    Thank you.

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and